If Sylvan Creecy had run in another direction, he might have ended up on the concrete floor of a makeshift morgue, lying beside the men he had worked alongside that day in 1933. Instead, he spent the hours after California’s deadliest fire writing about what he witnessed in the last moments of his unlucky coworkers’ lives.
“Screams mingled with the dry crackle of the burning brush,” he wrote. “‘Oh God!’ one man cried, ‘Help me! Help me!’”
In a first-person account that appeared the next day in the University of Southern California’s student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, Creecy credited “blind luck” for his survival and said he wasn’t sure how many others — all desperate for work during the Great Depression — had escaped death with him. But he knew how many, at minimum, had not.
“I saw between 20 and 25 men burned to death today, screaming and fighting for life in a tornado of fire,” he wrote, describing a blaze that nearly encircled the men as they stood on the side of a hill. “Terror-stricken, they leapt through the flames, continued on a few feet and went down in a welter of hot ashes and flames. … Some fought one another in blind terror and indecision. They had to fight something as the flames closed in. It was instinct. They couldn’t fight the flames.”
This year, destructive and deadly wildfires have ravaged California, hollowing out homes and uprooting lives. The state this month is battling its fourth-largest fire on record, named Thomas, that by Thursday had claimed the life of a firefighter and consumed nearly 380 square miles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. It is only 30 percent contained, according to officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE.
But if cost is measured in lives lost instead of acreage charred, the fire that has brought the steepest price for the state remains the one that tore through Griffith Park in Los Angeles on October 3, 1933.
Only 47 acres burned, but at least 29 people died. In the days afterward, headlines described it as a “Park Holocaust” and the Los Angeles Times at the top of its front page featured a drawing of the grim reaper spreading flames with his scythe.
The high death toll speaks both to the unpredictable nature of fires and to some of the nation’s darkest economic times.
“It’s a Great Depression story,” said Mike Eberts, a Glendale Community College professor and expert on the Griffith Park fire.
At the time, hundreds of thousands of jobless men had found work through a government relief program aimed at easing the economic collapse. The program called for men to earn money while doing needed manual labor that would take them into parks and forests. A New York Times article explained the logic at the time as, “In the forests there is work to be done and in the nation there is estimated to be from 10,000,000 to 12,000,000 jobless men.”
On the day of the fire, more than 3,700 of these workers were at Griffith Park, maintaining trails, clearing brush and building a road, Eberts said. For their efforts, they earned 40 cents an hour.
Different theories would later surface about the cause of the small brush fire that started after 2 p.m. in a canyon. Some would blame a communist plot. Others, a carelessly tossed cigarette. It would also remain disputed whether the workers were asked or ordered to help put out the flames. Less uncertain was their response. Many took on the job, and they did so armed only with shovels.
“They had no idea how to fight a fire, and their bosses had no idea how to fight a fire,” Eberts said. “And what really doomed the workers was when they went down in the canyon it was pretty calm and the fire was small, but the wind came up at exactly the wrong time. For the workers who were really crowded into this canyon, they had a split-second decision to make.”
Some ran down the hill, toward the fire and a main road. Others scrambled, in vain, up a canyon wall.
“You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams,” said witness John Secor, who is quoted in a historic account Eberts wrote that is now posted on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s historical archive website. “The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence. Then you would hear someone scream and then it would be silent again. It was all over inside of seven minutes.”
More precisely, it was over at 3 p.m. Eberts notes in his account: “That much is well pinpointed because in some cases the dead workers wore watches that stopped when the flames reached them.”
Among the survivors were those who were lucky or creative. One man recalled how a supervisor called him over right before the fire swept through where he had been standing.
Another survivor jumped into a stone planter he was building around an oak tree and covered himself in sand. A story in the Madera Tribune described a park employee who had painted his tractor bright pink, gaining him a reprimand, and used that vehicle to drive a 10-foot firebreak ahead of the flames, holding them back. The tractor was left blackened, but according to the article, the park commission planned to honor him and told him “he could repaint the tractor pink, purple, heliotrope of any other color that he liked.”
Front page of the Los Angeles Times Oct. 4, 1933. In the aftermath, as bodies were counted and claimed, the death toll ranged. Estimates from officials reached as high as 80. The headline in University of Southern California’s student newspaper read on October 4: “50 Men Die in Canyon Fire at Griffith Park.” And even after the official toll was set at 29, a labor group insisted 58 lives were lost.
The only thing that was certain was that the deaths were too many for the county’s morgue to handle and so the bodies were taken to another government building. There, the corpses were laid on the concrete floor and their belongings placed in an apple crate, according to Eberts’ account.
Among the items in the crate: a high school class ring, a collapsible cup, two belt buckles with inscriptions, a Ford ignition key and a human foot.
Identification was difficult not only because few people had belongings at a time when the need for food outweighed the want of jewelry, but also because many of the men were not local and work permits were sometimes borrowed. One man that day had given his to his nephew.
In the next day’s Los Angeles Herald-Express, a story described those who died as “laborers and clerks and executives and even ministers.”
“In their hearts a little candle of hope had been burning again because they had a chance to earn a little money,” it reads. “It was only a brush fire that they were asked to extinguish. It was the sort that skilled fireworkers know how to handle. But the men in the park weren’t fire fighters. They did not know that canyons become flutes in a brush fire, or that flames travel with such deadly swiftness over grass and trees grown brittle with the summer drought. It was work. That was all that mattered.”
A search for the name Sylvan Creecy, the man who wrote about watching his co-workers die, reveals just how deep desperation had dug into the population. An article that appeared in the San Bernadino Sun a few days after the fire describes Creecy as “a prominent Los Angeles track hero” and “a member of the American Olympic games team in 1928.”
“One of the casualties in Tuesday’s Griffith park fire, Creecy pleaded for aid for eight members of his family,” the article reads. “He declared he was their sole support and not a crust of bread remained in the house.”
The county supervisor, the article noted, promised the family would receive food.
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